Monday, February 6, 2017

Impermanent Things- Getting a hold of what matters

On rare occasions, there are songs which grab me the first time I hear them. Sometimes it’s the music. Other times, the lyrics grab my attention. On rare occasion, it’s both. Although it’s not a new song, Peter Himmelman’s song Impermanent Things had that effect on me when I first heard it a few weeks ago. As I’ve listened to it multiple times over the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that its message resonates so deeply with me.

All these impermanent things Oh how they fool me dominate and rule me...

Last week, my wife got me a new phone. My old one was not working well, as it had little memory left. While I had realized for a while that it was a time for an upgrade, I had held off on getting a replacement. It wasn’t that I didn’t want one. On the contrary, I very much wanted one, and thus knew I should hold off.

...Well their beauty's never aging but their worthlessness's enraging...

My father was one of the least materialistic people I’ve ever met. Other than buying a couple of new suits every couple of years, I rarely saw him buy anything for himself, other than books, and enough cigarettes to feed his habit. Like many things, I never asked him about his lack of need for things.

...Why keep hanging on to things that never stay things that just keep stringin' us along from day to day...

For me, it’s an acquired taste. Okay, that’s not really true. I have no taste for it. I still want things. It’s just that my tastes far exceed what’s in my wallet, so if I can’t beat it, might as well pretend it doesn’t exist.

...All these impermanent things Present yet elusive passive yet abusive Tearing out the heart in utter silence...

I’m in class, pontificating to a class, in one of the many cities I’ve lived. I’m sharing my theory that once you pay for a car which has everything you can reasonably need, paying for anything extra is wrong, even immoral. A student whose parents own a Mercedes, who in my self-righteousness I have failed to notice is feeling uncomfortable, raises her hand. I call on her and she asks “Do you apply the same standard to yourself when you buy things you can afford?”.

I’m silent.

...All these impermanent things Well they point in all directions like secondhand reflections...

My father was from the Bronx. Maybe that’s why he was as blue-collar as they get. When he bought his last car, they had to special order it. You see, nobody else was insisting that they wanted a car without electric windows. He could the windows on his own, thank you very much.

...All these impermanent things Well they're trying to convince me baptize my soul and rinse me...

As soon as I got the new phone, I knew it was holding me, rather than the reverse. It was shiny, and thin and new. Maybe even the latest model. And it was mine. All mine.

...Purge my mind of honesty and fire...

What else, and more importantly, who else, do I treat like things? Do I buy sefarim to draw closer to God, or the sefarim another possession I want to own? Maybe it’s God who I wish to possess, as if this is an area where I can have what others want. I can philosophize it and talk of Buber’s I-It, but that just pushes it off, as if it’s just an idea, and not something deeper. Something more concerning.

...All these impermanent things Well they all add up to zero they make-believe that they're my hero Then they fill my mind with doubt and false desires...

There’s another approach. One that doesn’t involve fighting what I might not be able to change. One that accepts it, somehow channeling it into good. With this path the doubt dissipates as I recognize that it’s not just others that I treat as an object. In letting go of the need to possess things, might I find myself?

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Finding God in History- A Review of When God Becomes History: Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook

As I have noted in a previous review, Rav Kook, despite being somewhat well known, is the victim of all sorts of assumptions. This is particularly true in the English speaking world where he is primarily known for his Zionism (more on this later), and secondarily as a charismatic leader. While there are various reasons for why he is seen in this manner, I will just focus on a few.

Until fairly recently, not that many of Rav Kook’s writing were easily available to the English reader. Of those that were, most came from his more mystical and theoretical writings. My sense is that even those who study his writings in Hebrew, are less aware of his more practical writings. Fortunately, Rav Bezalel  Naor, who I am privileged to count among my teachers, has committed to not only spreading the teachings of Rav Kook, but in his latest work, a new edition of When God Becomes History- Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (first published in 2003), Rav Naor has committed to showing that Rav Kook had a more practical side, and that he spoke out and wrote about some of the pressing issues of the day, some of which continue to affect us today.

In addition to many of the features which make any work of Rav Naor worth reading in general, and in particular those on Rav Kook, including his erudition, scholarship, and fascinating endnotes which are often almost worthy of a book of their own, there were a number of things which stand out in this book. To begin, we see Rav Kook not just as theoretician, whose writings sometimes border on the prophetic, but we also see him addressing various situations, including the passing of Herzl, in the eulogy he delivered in his memory.

Another chapter offers us the speech which Rav Kook delivered at the ceremony marking the opening of the Hebrew University in Yerushalayim. What makes these last two examples particularly fascinating is that Rav Naor writes of the controversy that each of these speeches engendered among Rav Kook’s friends, talmidim and opponents. Several letters are brought where we see Rav Kook clarifying his remarks to those who intentionally or accidentally misunderstood him.

Perhaps the most fascinating part for me (although there is this amazing idea in the endnotes from the Pachad Yitzchak , whose author Rav Hutner appears in the book…), is the introduction to the eulogy for Herzl, where Rav Naor shows that the common understanding of Rav Kook as a dyed-in-the-wool Zionist, with no misgivings about the Zionist venture to be mistaken. Rav Naor conclusively demonstrates that Rav Kook had strong misgivings about Zionism, particularly early on in his stay in Israel, and that he took the positions he did about Zionism due to careful considerations, despite his concerns, and it is here that I come to what makes this book one that only Rav Naor could have written.

I have studied a decent amount of Rav Kook’s Torah, and read many articles and essays about him. While there are many scholars in the Hebrew and English speaking worlds who can do research and share interesting ideas about Rav Kook, Rav Naor is sui generis in having expertise in so many of the areas which made Rav Kook who he was. When he writes or speaks of Rav Kook, one almost gets the sense that they are hearing from someone who studied with Rav Kook firsthand, even as they know that to be impossible. His grasp of nigleh and nistar, as well his serious scholarship makes him unique in those who can teach us about Rav Kook.

This fascinating volume will benefit the expert and the laymen, those who have studied much of Rav Kook’s Torah and those who have not, and especially those who think they’ve heard all that has to be said about this fascinating polymath. It can also serve as an excellent introduction into the ideas for Rav Kook for those who might have assumed that his Torah and ideas are inaccessible to them. Once again, Alec Goldstein of Kodesh Press is to be commended for making a quality work of Torah scholarship available to the English-speaking world.

The book launch for this book will take place next Thursday, February 9th, at the YU Seforim sale. Rav Naor will speak at this event, which is free. For more information, please click here.